The Danish National Football Team, A Brief History…

From its beginnings in the early part of the 20th century, the national football team of Denmark has a very interesting story, a nation with its fair share of great players in its history.  The birth of the Danish national side occurred within the realms of amateur football.  I suppose it was quite frustrating for those in Denmark who wanted the introduction of a professional league, like many countries in Europe were doing so at the time.  However, the Dansk Boldspil Union in Brøndby which was set up in 1889, were unable to fulfill this predictably for financial reasons.  Despite the slow march to a professional set up in Denmark, the D.B.U. were founder members of both U.E.F.A. and F.I.F.A.  In 1906 a Danish international team was invited by the International Olympic Committee to take part in the Intercalated Games, hosted by the Greeks in Athens. 

Denmark at the Intercalated Games, 1906.

The idea behind the Intercalated Games was a short lived one by the I.O.C. These games were styled on the Olympic Games, and were supposed to be held between the official Olympiads.  The idea didn’t take off at all, only one such games took place, as mentioned that of the Athens games of 1906.  At those Intercalated Games, the Danes would compete with three other teams, a team from the host city of Athens and two from the old Ottoman Empire, Izmir and Thessaloniki.  Two notable players in the Danish squad was Oskar Nørland and Charles Buchwald.  Nørland was from Roskilde and would go on to pick up a few medals as a member of the Danish football team, Buchwald was from one of the noble families of Denmark.  Like Nørland, Buchwald would go on to win medals, he played his club football for Østerbros Boldklub and Akademisk Boldklub. Akademisk is still going, based in Gladsaxe, it’s now a professional club, playing in the Danish second division. 

Oskar Nørland.

Denmark’s first fixture at those games was against Izmir, the Danes won comfortably 5 – 1, and in the other game Athens defeated Thessaloniki 5 – 0.  In the final, Denmark put nine goals past their Athenian opponents without reply. The Danes won the tournament.   Interestingly, the side from Izmir consisted mainly of English and French players.  A couple of years later, the Danes entered the first official football tournament of the summer Olympics, hosted by the city of London.  The Danes finished runners up, therefore being awarded the silver medal. They were beaten in the final by the Great Britain Olympic side. The Danes reached the final after they had defeated the French B side 9 – 0 in the quarter finals. The match was held at White City, which saw Vilhelm Wolfhagen scoring four of those goals.  In the semifinals the Danes beat the French A side 17 – 1, Sophus Nielsen scoring ten.  The French A side were so distraught after that mauling from the Danes, they removed themselves from the competition, This meant that the Netherlands would play Sweden for the bronze medal, the Dutch emerged victorious and picked up the bronze medal. 

Poul Nielsen.

Sophus Nielsen was the top scorer for Denmark in that inaugural Olympic football tournament.  Nielsen was a native of Copenhagen and played his club football for Boldklubben Frem and for the German side Holstein Kiel.  Many years later Nielsen would go on to manage the Danish national side, he had the nickname of “Krølben”, or “Bandy Legs”.  They were also to pick up the silver medal again four years later at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.  Victories against Norway, and the Netherlands put them in the final against Great Britain, this time they lost 4 – 2, and once again the Dutch picked up the bronze medal.

Sophus Nielsen.

From that time on Denmark were easily one the world’s best sides, their amateur players were easily a match for most countries professional standard players. However, by 1930 onwards with the advent of the F.I.F.A. World Cup, they would find it difficult to feature prominently in world football. For one reason or another the D.B.U. would persevere with amateur football only. 

Denmark, summer Olympics 1912.

In 1924 The Nordic Football Championship was established, an idea championed by the Danes.  In 1919 the agreement between the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish football governing bodies that said the Nordic countries should play each a total of twice a year came to an end, it was a formal legal contract.  It seemed those other countries needed some convincing because the first Nordic Championship wasn’t realised until about four years later.  The format of the tournament consisted of the three nations of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. They would play each other over five games for a total of ten matches for each side, over four years. Each country would take turns organizing the tournament and they would also supply and name the trophy, its own version of the Nordic Cup, please don’t ask me why… 

Nils Middleboe of Denmark on the ball v Great Britain, at the 1912 Olympic final, Stockholm.

Denmark were indeed the first winners of the tournament, winning the Jubilæumspokal Cup.  Finland entered the next Nordic Cup which was organized by Sweden, Norway finished as champions, lifting the Guldkrus Cup.  Over the next few decades the Nordic Cup was dominated by Sweden, winning it nine times on the bounce.  Denmark have won it a total of three times. The last Nordic Cup was contested during the 2000 – 2001 season, which was won for the first time by Finland. The first time the Danes played England in a competitive match was in 1948 it finished 0 – 0, the game taking place at the Idraettsparken stadium.  Frank Swift was in goal for England that day, other English players who played included John Aston of Manchester United and Stanley Matthews.  They didn’t meet again for another seven years, playing each other again in 1955 at the same venue, this time England thrashing Denmark 5 – 1.  

As the years went on Denmark would see more success at the Olympics, at the 1948 Olympics the Danes picked up a bronze medal.  The next couple of Olympic games were quite disappointing for them, they failed to make it past the quarter finals during the ’52 Olympics, and they decided not to take part in the ’56 games.  It was around this time that many Danish players were signing professional contracts with teams outside of Denmark, however 1960 saw the Danes achieve more Olympic success when they picked up a silver medal, losing in the final to Yugoslavia 3 – 1.

World Cup qualifying match programme, Denmark v England, 15 May 1957.

It was at the 1964 European Championship that Denmark first impressed on the big stage.  The final stages of that competition were held in Spain.  Along with the Danes and host nation Spain, the Soviet Union and Hungary were also in attendance.  Unfortunately in the semifinal, the Danes were beaten 3 – 0 by the Soviet Union in Barcelona.  In the third place play off they lost to Hungary, 3 – 1, Carl Bertelsen of Scottish side Greenock Morton scoring the Danish consolation goal.  Up until then it was the Denmark’s best performance at a major tournament.  When 1971 arrived the D.B.U. decided to do away with only allowing amateur players in the national side, however people would have to wait until 1978 for the D.B.U. to allow its domestic league to go fully professional.  So it was all systems go for the professional game in Denmark, this change on the football landscape in Denmark saw the D.B.U. enter its first sponsorship contract, with Danish brewers Carlsberg.  With the increased amount of money in the Danish game, the German born Sepp Piontek was brought in to manage the national team.  During his playing career, Piontek picked up a D.F.B. Pokal Cup winner’s medal in ’61 and a Bundesliga winners medal at Werder Bremen in ’65. He also picked up six international caps, playing for West Germany. 

Sepp Piontek.

When Piontek was named the Denmark manager, he was already enjoying a varied career. He first went into management in 1971 with Werder Bremen, he then went on to manage Fortuna Düsseldorf and the Haiti national team.  He was known to be a good coach who didn’t like his teams to sit back, he preferred an aggressive attacking approach, a tactic his Denmark team would soon visibly adopt.  The big disappointment for the Danes of the early ’80’s was the failure to qualify for the World Cup of 1982.  They had been drawn into qualifying Group 5 along with Italy, Yugoslavia, Luxembourg and Greece.  It wasn’t a good start for the Danes, losing their opening game 2 – 1 in Yugoslavia, they then lost their second game 1 – 0 at home to the Greeks.  Another loss this time to Italy, and the writing was on the wall. However, the Danes did give themselves something to smile about with two victories over Luxembourg, a 4 – 0 home win and a 2 – 1 away win in the tiny principality.  They then surprised everyone when they beat Italy at home 3 – 1, although after three straight wins in the group they then lost 2 – 1 to Yugoslavia at home.  Their final group game was a 3 – 2 away win over in Greece, but it was too little too late. They finished in third place behind Yugoslavia and Italy, so no Spanish world cup for Denmark.  Many pundits had backed Denmark to make it through to Spain, they went into that qualifying phase with a very talented squad indeed. 

In that Danish squad were such players as Morten Olsen of Anderlecht, Søren Lerby of Bayern Munich (who would go on to win the European Cup with Dutch club PSV Eindhoven a few years later), Michael Laudrup of Italian club Lazio, Klaus Berggreen of A.C. Pisa, Preben Elkjær of Belgian club Lokeren and two players that would soon be transferred to Manchester United, Jesper Olsen of Ajax and John Sivebæk of Vejle Boldklub.  So as you can see, professionalism had a really positive effect upon the Danish game, Danish players seen as rank amateurs only a few years before now found themselves being offered contracts from some of Europe’s biggest clubs. 

Michael Laudrup, 1984.

On the 22nd of September 1982 Denmark played its first Euro ’84 qualifier, against England at home at the Idrætsparken stadium.  A crowd of over 44,000 saw the Danes draw against the much fancied England side.  Trevor Francis had opened the scoring for England early in the 8th minute, it stayed that way until the 68th minute when Allen Hansen leveled the game for the Danes.  The last ten minutes of the game had the crowd well and truly on its feet, when Francis again scored for England in the 82nd minute.  With only a minute to go of normal time Jesper Olsen scored for Denmark. It finished 2 – 2.  The Danes next game was away in Luxembourg, they went home with a 2 – 1 win, Lerby and Berggreen scoring their goals.  After that in the April of 1983, they entertained the Greeks at the Idrætsparken, they won the game courtesy of a goal by Søren Busk of Belgian club Gent.  It was a much improved tournament qualification phase for the Danes. 

Smoke bombs at the Idrætsparken, Denmark v England, 1984

Early June saw the Hungarians travel to Denmark, they went home empty handed as the Danes ran out 3 – 1 winners.  The qualifying stages for the 1984 European Championship, to be held in France, presented the Danes with another chance to qualify for a major tournament.  They were drawn into qualifying Group 3.  With them in that group were Hungary, Luxembourg, Greece and England.  A year after the Group qualification phase began, the Danes recorded arguably their best result in international football when they defeated England at Wembley stadium, 1 – 0, the goal scored by Allan Simonsen from the penalty spot.  I remember that game, England were awful that night. Their last three games yielded 2 victories and one loss.  A month after their win at Wembley, they destroyed Luxembourg at home to the tune of 6 – 0.  They then went to Hungary, losing 1 – 0. That loss was a minor hiccup and purely academic, in their last group game Denmark went to Greece and beat their hosts 2 – 0, the goals scored by Simonsen and Elkjær.

Denmark defeat England at Wembley stadium, September 1983.

They topped the group by a point over England, only one team went through, Denmark were going to France for Euro ’84.  Only eight teams would take part in Euro ’84, split into two groups of four.  Denmark were drawn into Group A along with host nation France, Yugoslavia and Belgium. A tough group, Denmark’s opposition in that group had built themselves reputations as good, solid, attacking sides.  On the 12th of June Denmark played their opening Euro ’84 match against host nation and tournament favourites France, at the Parc Des Princes stadium in Paris.  Before a very partisan crowd, the French won the game 1 – 0, the goal scored by Michel Platini late in the game.  A narrow defeat then for Pontiek’s emerging Danish team, but things would improve.  Their next game a few days later came in the form of Yugoslavia, the Danes battered them, running out 5 – 0 winners at the Stade De Gerland, home of Olympique Lyonnais, Frank Arnesen scoring himself a brace. 

Denmark suffer a narrow defeat v France in their opening game of the 1984 European Championship.

After that pick me up, the next game for Denmark was against Belgium at the Stade de la Meinau, home of Racing Club of Strasbourg.  With less than forty minutes of the game gone, Denmark found themselves two goals down. Fortunately about two minutes after Frank Vercauteren had put the Belgians 2 – 0 ahead, Frank Arnesen put Denmark back in the game courtesy of a 41st minute penalty.  In the second half the Danes got to work, two goals from Kenneth Brylle Larsen and Preben Elkjær ensured the Danes won the game, 3 – 2 after coming back from two goals down. 

The Danes ready for their Euro ’84 match against Belgium.

That fantastic win meant Denmark would finish in second place in the group behind France, Belgium and the Yugoslavs were going home.  Denmark had made the semifinals of a major tournament, I remember them being in the newspapers, the press were full of praise for Sepp Piontek’s team, and rightly so, God knows what it was like in Denmark! In the semifinal they met Spain, at the Stade De Gerland. 

Frank Arnesen, 1984.

It was one of the games of the tournament, edge of the seat stuff.  It finished 1 – 1 after extra time, penalties would be needed.  It was a tense and nervous shoot out.  Sadly for Elkjær, he missed his shot from penalty spot, Spain scored all of theirs, and it was they who would go through to the final where they would be beaten by France.  For Denmark, they would home and lick their wounds. 

Spain v Denmark, European Championship semi final, 1984.

However, that Danish sojourn into major international football would be no fluke, Denmark had finally arrived on the big stage.  Two years later they would be in Mexico for the world cup, in Group E.  They walked that group winning all their group games against Scotland, Uruguay and West Germany, before losing to the Spaniards again in the next round.  Euro ’92 would provide the Danes with their finest hour, they would go on to win the tournament following a 2 – 0 victory over Germany in Gothenburg’s Ullevi stadium.  Today Danish players play all over Europe for the top sides, their amateur days long gone.

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